By Jodi S. Cohen and Stacy St. Clair
College of DuPage trustees and senior administrators used a separate — and previously undisclosed — account at the campus' high-end restaurant to charge thousands of dollars in alcohol to a foundation intended to fund student scholarships, a Tribune investigation found.
All totaled, the College of DuPage Foundation, the school's fundraising arm, spent about $162,000 in donor money at the Waterleaf restaurant since it opened in late 2011. That's on top of the nearly $190,000 in taxpayer funds spent by college President Robert Breuder and senior managers on their house accounts at Waterleaf in the past three years.
Shielded from a Tribune open records request for months and released only after Tribune attorneys intervened, the new records bolster criticism that college insiders have heavily subsidized the money-losing restaurant on the Glen Ellyn campus. Through house accounts, $1 in every $9 taken in by Waterleaf has come from the college or the foundation, according to a Tribune analysis of financial records.
Together, the publicly funded college and its foundation have spent nearly $352,000 at the tony, French-inspired restaurant.
The new revelations come as the embattled institution, the largest community college in the state, already is facing federal and state investigations into, among other things, school spending and foundation activities. A federal grand jury subpoena issued last week as part of a wide-ranging criminal investigation at the school specifically seeks records connected to college house accounts.
"It's another troubling practice, for sure," state Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, who has called for a state audit of the school's finances, said about the foundation-related expenses. "I don't see how running up bar tabs before meetings fits in with the college's core mission."
A college spokesman on Sunday declined to answer most questions about the foundation's Waterleaf account. A spokesman for the foundation said many of the meals were for fundraising and helped generate contributions, but he declined to address bar bills for college trustees and senior managers.
The foundation tabs are charged to a restaurant house account, much like a system used at a private country club, and then billed to the nonprofit organization. The receipts rarely indicate who was present at the meals or the reasons for them, making it difficult to know whether foundation officials were hosting prospective donors.
The nearly 200 receipts reveal that some expenses were for college trustees and administrators. What's more, evenings on which alcohol was ordered often coincided with the school's monthly board meetings. The Tribune identified 25 meeting nights when alcohol was charged to the foundation. Those bar tabs totaled about $9,000 — an average of about $360 a night. That's in addition to the dinner bills charged separately to the college and picked up by taxpayers.
The most recent meeting-related receipt was dated Jan. 22 — the night trustees first approved Breuder's controversial $763,000 buyout package calling for him to leave next year, three years early. Records show the foundation picked up a $312 alcohol tab for a "board dinner" that included two $87 bottles of pinot noir, as well as bourbon and vodka.
The alcohol tabs are often expensed to the foundation at the same time the trustees' and senior managers' dinners are being expensed to the college, suggesting the college had the foundation pay alcohol expenses because school policy limits when alcohol can be reimbursed.
On the night of the Oct. 16, 2014, board meeting, for example, the college picked up a $529 dinner bill for nine guests charged to Breuder's house account, including veal, filet mignon and crab sandwiches. The foundation house account, meanwhile, was charged $304 for alcohol, including two $81 bottles of pinot noir, high-end vodka and beer.
Both receipts are time-stamped just before 7 p.m., and both list "Board Meeting" on the signature line. Board meetings start at 7 p.m.
On the night of the Dec. 18 board meeting, the college similarly picked up a $714 bill for dinner for 12 guests. The foundation, meanwhile, paid a $388 bill that included two $84 bottles of wine, whiskey and other drinks.
The latest receipts are in addition to what the Tribune previously identified as numerous instances in which top administrators used taxpayer funds to pay for their Champagne, wine and top-shelf liquors.
The most expensive alcohol-only bill charged to the foundation's account is from August 2013, when the board announced at its meeting that Breuder had been named CEO of the year for the Association of Community College Trustees' central region. That evening, a dozen guests racked up a $643 bar tab that included six bottles of wine, two Heinekens and two glasses of Glenlivet scotch, according to a receipt.
Time stamps on the receipts make it difficult to determine whether the drinking took place before or after the meetings, though trustee Katharine Hamilton said the board and administrators regularly gathered before meetings. She attended several events before stopping because she said it was "excessive," and later reimbursed the college $900.
On Sunday, she said she didn't know alcohol was being billed to the foundation.
"There is no reason for the foundation to be paying for alcohol at board dinners," she said. "The foundation is there for scholarships."
College officials had denied the existence of a foundation-related house account, even when asked specifically, and repeatedly, about it. The Tribune first sought Waterleaf-related documents in a Jan. 20 Freedom of Information Act request, including records showing "all House accounts" and copies of all receipts.
The college provided records from two accounts — Breuder's and another for senior managers. It did not provide receipts tied to the foundation account, though they are generated by the restaurant before being submitted to the foundation for reimbursement.
As recently as April 13, foundation Executive Director Catherine Brod said "no" when asked in an interview if a foundation account at the restaurant existed. Then asked if there had been one in the past, Brod said yes, but said she was "not sure" for how long. The most recent receipt provided to the Tribune is from Feb. 6.
College officials declined to say when the accounts were shut down, but sources have said they were suspended shortly before the Tribune published an investigation about Waterleaf in early March.
The college turned over the foundation-related documents late Friday. Randall Samborn, who handles crisis communications for the school, said the college had decided earlier this year that the documents could not be produced because they were held by the foundation.
"Upon further review, the college determined that it should make available copies of those documents," Samborn said.
Foundation officials describe their primary purpose as raising scholarship money. The assistance is so crucial at the community college level, they said, that even a $500 textbook scholarship can make the difference for students contemplating whether they can afford college.
Funded by individual and corporate donors, the foundation has provided about 900 students with scholarships this school year, a spokesman said.
Foundation President Susan Lang Berry said in an interview that donor funds are meant to help students.
"The college is not getting the money that's being raised," she said. "Giving money (to the foundation) is giving money to the students."
The 130-seat restaurant was Breuder's brainchild, and he has defended it as a marketing tool that brings members of the community to campus. Critics, including college employees and students, dismiss it as a vanity project, noting that culinary students work there only occasionally. Waterleaf has lost nearly $2 million since it opened, though state law says it should be self-sustaining.
The Tribune previously revealed that Breuder and his senior management team billed about 500 visits to taxpayers, sometimes hosting community members but often meeting with each other for meals or after-work drinks. They drank $60 bottles of Champagne at an administrator "recognition" event, and spent $3,572 on a holiday dinner for 18 people.
After that report, college trustees said they would investigate the bills to determine if the spending broke school policy. Samborn said Sunday that the board's review of the alcohol expenses is ongoing.
The foundation has more latitude than the college, since it is not spending taxpayer funds.
Foundation bills range from as little as $20 to $25,000. The receipts do not include sales tax because, as a nonprofit, the foundation is not required to pay it, but do include 20 percent gratuity.
The tabs include a variety of events, from one-on-one lunches to appreciation dinners for donors. About 75 bills have Brod's name on the signature line, and a foundation spokesman said Sunday that all of her "expenditures were directly related to fundraising."
"She specifically chooses to host donors on campus as opposed to traveling offsite," said spokesman Matt Butterfield. The foundation also hosted events to recognize donors, Butterfield added, including one for Cleve Carney and 300 of his family and friends to recognize his $1.9 million donation.
Glenn Hansen, president of the college faculty union, said Sunday that donors expect their contributions to help students.
"There's no way buying a round of drinks for trustees and top administrators benefits students," Hansen said. "Like everything that has been going on at the college lately, it goes beyond the normal limit of decency."
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